HACKENSACK, N.J. — Many mothers who planned to stay home to raise children say the recession has pushed them to work — or hunt for work — much sooner than expected.
At play groups, employment firms, nanny agencies, therapists' offices and online discussion forums, married women are saying that a husband's layoff, fear of downsizing or tighter household budgets have forced them to update resumes they thought they had put to rest until their kids went to school.
It's too early to find current data specifically on moms, but numbers on women from the Bureau of Labor Statistics back up anecdotal evidence of the trend. The percentage of women ages 24 to 44 who are in the labor force — meaning they have jobs or want them — has grown during the recession, to 75.7 percent last month, up from 75.3 percent in December 2007. Steve Hipple, an economist at the bureau, called that increase small but noteworthy.
"The recent rise in labor force participation among women of child-bearing age supports the notion of the 'added-worker effect,' which means women entering the labor force after the job loss of a husband," Hipple says. Meanwhile, men's jobs have been harder hit by the turmoil; they account for 78 percent of job losses due to their concentrations in ailing industries like construction and manufacturing.
Mothers who need to head back to work repeatedly stress they don't want to sound whiny but that this change of plans can be intensely emotional. Indeed, in January, two Livingston, N.J., moms launched a social networking site, MyWork Butterfly.com, to support mothers trying to re-enter the workforce and adjust to its demands. Bradi Nathan said women were so overwhelmed by the prospect of going back to work that the site added a psychotherapist and career coach that members can contact online.
To be sure, some mothers say they feel very lucky they had the luxury of staying home while it lasted. Most moms don't. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that in 2007, 60 percent of married women with children younger than 6 were employed.
When her husband got laid off last June without severance pay, Lainie Gilbert, 43, was forced back to work. She felt her past job as a geriatric counselor was too draining to handle on top of children ages 6, 11 and 13, so she applied to Starbucks and Bloomingdales but was overqualified. Then she decided to make use of her skills as a "gym rat" and got certified as a personal trainer. Now she works 40 hours a week in a Little Falls, N.J., studio. She loves it.
"The juggle is very hard, but the reward is getting out of the house and doing something productive," she said. "I could not have anticipated how wonderful it would be."
Some entrepreneurial moms hope starting their own businesses will give them the freedom they crave. Stephanie Huang of Woodcliff Lake, whose youngest child is a toddler, is trying to make money through nutrition counseling. Even though her husband is a surgeon, she feels they need a "financial Plan B" due to the recent drop in the value of their house and retirement savings.
"The children are very needy," she said, "but if I were to stay home and watch the recession take its full force, I would feel hopeless and ineffective."
Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, cites one sobering statistic on the challenge of finding jobs: In December 2008, 1.3 million women who were actively searching for work had told surveyors just a month earlier that they weren't working, didn't want work or weren't available for it. That group of new job-seekers was 18 percent bigger than in December 2007.
Tracey Austin, director of Flexible Resources, an employment agency, agrees it's a very difficult time for moms who stepped away from careers to compete. "Employers are looking for experience," she said.
That's one reason Patricia Letwink, who used to work in a technology role at a prescription benefit management company, wants to jump back in. Her kids are almost 3 and 5. At first she had hoped to wait until the youngest hit kindergarten, but now she's afraid of leaving too long a gap in her resume. She knows she'll be vying with people who have fresher skills.